Last week the Biden administration hosted a conference focused on nutrition, health, and hunger in America. The White House says the conference was intended to help craft a national strategy to "identify steps the government will take and catalyze the public and private sectors to address the intersections between food, hunger, nutrition, and health." The conference's goals included improving food access and affordability, integrating nutrition and health, and empowering consumers to make healthy food choices.
The timing of the conference—a lowlight of which included Biden wondering aloud why a recently deceased member of Congress wasn't in attendance—was fortuitous. It was held amidst the double whammy of record-high food prices and obesity rates in this country.
In the lead-up to the conference, the Biden administration announced billions of dollars in public and private contributions—the latter including money and other resources provided by companies such as Doordash, Chobani, Google, and the National Grocers Association—as part of a "transformational vision" to help end hunger and reduce diet-related diseases such as diabetes by 2030.
That certainly sounds nice. But just what did—or can—a conference such as this achieve? As always, the devil's in the details. And those details appear in many cases to involve merely reheating soggy leftover ideas. Indeed, a lengthy strategy document released by the White House suggests its so-called "transformational vision" is largely neither.
The administration's plans to improve food access and affordability include "increasing access to free and nourishing school meals." School lunches may be free for many kids, but those meals are neither nourishing nor—frequently—healthy or edible. As I detail in my book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable, the meals' alleged "affordability" comes from the fact the foods contained in them are typically subsidized from farm to fork.
Worse, proposed plans to empower consumers to make healthy choices may include yet another revision of mandatory food labeling requirements for packaged foods. As the conference document notes, Biden was serving as vice president the last time such changes to food labels (which the document refers to preposterously as "iconic") were supposed to accomplish something big.
Perhaps the most troubling element of the document is a proposal to "assess additional steps to reduce added sugar consumption, including potential voluntary targets." While I agree Americans should consume far less sugar than they do, the Obama administration already went down this path, and obesity and other diet-related diseases have only risen. Moreover, the words "including potential voluntary targets" strongly suggest mandatory targets for sugar consumption. Indeed, as NPR noted in the wake of the conference, activists "are hopeful the conference serves as a first step towards future… policy changes."
Instead of the whole conference hoopla, a simpler solution, as I've suggested before, would be for the federal government to send cash to people who can't afford to buy sufficient food for themselves and their families. A New York Times report on last week's conference pointed to a recent USDA report that showed 10 percent of American households—13.5 million—are food-insecure. The White House could direct the entirety of the aforementioned $8 billion to those same households (which would work out to around $600 per household per year) and other, greater cash payments as needed. For that comparatively small investment, the federal government could have an immediate, positive impact on the lives of many hungry Americans without foisting still more ineffective or counterproductive policies on the American public. The results, then, could be just those the Biden administration says it wants.